Academic journal article Journal of Social and Psychological Sciences

Early Academic Self Concepts and the Racial Achievement Gap

Academic journal article Journal of Social and Psychological Sciences

Early Academic Self Concepts and the Racial Achievement Gap

Article excerpt

The aim of this essay is to examine the racial achievement gap in American education through the lens of Erik Erikson's fourth stage of psychosocial development: industry vs. inferiority (Erikson, 1950). To set the stage, I will argue that the well-documented academic underperformance of certain minority groups (chiefly black and Latino Americans) may stem from the unfavorable resolution of a key developmental crisis in constituent members' early scholastic experience. According to this view, minority students' academic self-conceptions are at a heightened risk, compared with their non-minority peers, of becoming defined by an early and enduring sense of Eriksonian inferiority. This risk increases, I will try to show, as a function of the extent to which their homegrown cultural identities are at odds with the cultural values endorsed, both implicitly and overtly, by the schools they attend. Taking this possibility into account, I go on to suggest that individual educators can play an important role in eliminating the achievement gap by changing the way they teach in their own classrooms. A major prerequisite, in this case, is raised awareness. Specifically, teachers must begin by identifying the tacit and explicit cultural values they hold personally as well as those encrusted both in their respective schools and in the larger society from which those schools derive their institutional character. Then they must determine how those values shape and influence classroom expectations vis-a-vis academic and socio-behavioral standards of evaluation, whether formal or informal. Finally, they must use this knowledge to see how their unconscious and hence unreflective espousal of those values (cf. Earp, 2010) may impede the proper development of an academically-industrious self-concept in their minority students--especially those students whose cultural backgrounds, as opposed to intellectual promise, do not immediately synch with social and institutional orthodoxy. I conclude by advocating a "transcultural" pedagogy or teaching style, according to which both teachers and their minority students develop (at minimum) transcultural proficiencies and (at maximum) transcultural identities, as a promising way to achieve two important ends. First, the fostering of an academically-industrious self- concept in members of historically underachieving minority groups and hence, second, the closing of the achievement gap "from the bottom up"--one classroom at a time.

Part I. Approach

The racial achievement gap in American education cannot possibly be resolved in the course of one short paper. As Gloria Ladson-Billings (1994) writes:

   No challenge has been more daunting than that of improving the
   academic achievement of African American students. Burdened with a
   history that includes the denial of education, separate and unequal
   education, and relegation to unsafe, substandard inner-city
   schools, the quest for quality education remains an elusive dream
   for the African American community. (p. ix)

Yet there is much productive work that can be done. In this essay, I am going to shy away from large-scale policy suggestions, such as affirmative action initiatives, or other legal maneuvers, and focus instead on pedagogy in the early K-12 years. Let me take a moment to explain my choice of focus.

By "affirmative action" I mean the policy in higher education among some schools by which a person's status as an underrepresented racial minority is explicitly, positively factored into his or her admissions decision. This practice, despite the best intentions of its designers and apologists, rests, in my view, on an inherently messy concept and may in consequence have troubling "side-effects" as well. To illustrate just one aspect of its messiness, the problem of stigma, here is an excerpt from Justice Clarence Thomas' sharp-tongued dissent in Grutter vs. Bollinger, the Supreme Court case which ruled to uphold The University of Michigan Law School's affirmative action program. …

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